4th of July Trail: Hike Nederland’s Gem (Arapaho Pass + Lake Dorothy)

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A view of mountains against blue skies on the 4th of July Trail outside of Nederland, Colorado

Hiking Colorado’s Unreal 4th of July Trail (Arapaho Pass + Lake Dorothy)

 

4th of July Trail Hike to Arapaho Pass and Lake Dorothy

Where: Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
Distance: 7.2 miles | 11.6 km
Elevation Gain: 1,942 feet | 592 meters
Time to Complete: 4-7 hours
Difficulty: Challenging to Difficult
Best Time to Hike: July to September
Park Fee: Free
Hiker Traffic:
Light to Moderate
Cell Service:
None
Noel’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars 5 out of 5 stars

The 4th of July Trail is just a short drive from my hometown, yet I’d never experienced its staggering beauty until my recent hike exploring its wide-open spaces. Hiking the trail’s breathtaking Arapaho Pass to the pristine Lake Dorothy blew my mind at every single turn. It was worth the 32-year-long wait.

Nestled in the heart of Indian Peaks Wilderness outside of Nederland, Colorado, this 7.2-mile out-and-back trail winds through the Roosevelt National Forest and reads like a backcountry explorer’s dream.

Sparkling fields of bright wildflowers dot the landscape. Chirping marmots scurry about the alpine forest. Birds of prey soar through the bright blue skies above. Remnants of an abandoned 19th-century gold mine collect rust at 11,000 feet. Towering mountain peaks nudge their way into the clouds. Rugged hiking trails move towards potential backcountry adventures on the horizon.

Want to learn more about the 4th of July Trail? Keep reading. I’ll tell you everything you need to know to plan an idyllic Rocky Mountain adventure of your own.   

Preparing for Your Hike

Arapaho Pass Trail leads to some of Colorado’s best backcountry camping

 

When to Hike

Logistically, the best months to hike are July, August, and September, although the ideal hiking season fluctuates from year to year. You can usually expect hard-to-traverse snowpack on the trail from October until June.

To view current trail conditions, visit the Fourth of July Trail’s AllTrails page for reviews and trail condition updates from fellow hikers.

What to Bring

Pack plenty of snacks (think 1500+ calories) and bring a minimum of two liters of water for a day hike – or pack a water filter to purify water as you go.

Wear sturdy hiking boots, heavy-duty sunscreen, and bring a set of trekking poles to help with the elevation changes. Bring altitude sickness pills if your body is not adjusted for high elevations and a pack rain jacket to protect against chilling alpine storms.

If you are going to camp in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, check out my lightweight backpacking gear packing list and backpacking meal planning posts to get prepared for your upcoming trip.

Trail Maps

Trail maps for the entire 4th of July, Arapaho Pass, and Caribou Pass Trails are all available to download on the free smartphone app, Maps.me. I’ve used Maps.me’s offline maps for every hiking, trekking, and backpacking adventure I’ve written about on this website. (Just download it already.)

Getting to the 4th of July Trailhead

Park your car at either of the Diamond Lake or the 4th of July Trailheads

The 4th of July Trailhead is located just past Nederland, Colorado, outside the small ski town of Eldora, and it’s is easy to find on Google Maps. The final four miles until the trailhead, on the aptly named 4th of July Road, are along a bumpy and high-clearance dirt path. There are two parking lots at the end of the road, and multiple strips of roadside parking along the way. Arrive early in the morning to avoid a long walk to the trailhead.

I highly recommend using a 4-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle with a reasonable amount of ground clearance to access this road.

Hiking the 4th of July Trail

Two hikers descend on the Arapahoe Pass hiking trail

Hikers descending from Arapahoe Pass

 

The 7.2-mile-long trail gains 1,942 feet of elevation at a 10% grade, which rates it as a challenging to difficult hike. Almost all of the trek is above 10,000 feet in elevation, so it’s vital that you acclimatize yourself to high altitudes before you start. If you start feeling symptoms of altitude sickness, take a break and analyze your options going forward.

From start to finish, the 4th of July Trail is an absolute joy. It’s winding backcountry splendor frequently stopped me dead in my tracks and offered hard-to-beat beauty at nearly every turn. Hiking the Arapaho Pass Trail to Caribou Lake might be the best day hike I’ve ever completed in Colorado, and I’ve been hiking here my whole life.

Trailside Drinking Water

A creek of water with pine trees and mountains in the background

Freshly melted glacial water is abundant on the hike

 

There are numerous streams along the trail running with freshly melted glacial runoff if you want to purify drinking water along the way. The flow from Arapaho Glacier and Lake Dorothy is an ice-cold treat to drink (if properly treated, of course).

Filtering drinking water along the way will trim water weight from your daypack, and 10,000+ feet of elevation, every ounce counts.

I used the Sawyer Squeeze water filter on my hike, which weighs only 2.8 oz and is incredibly easy to use. 

Abandoned 4th of July Mine

Lead mining equipment from the 1870s in front of a glacier

4th of July Mine: A failed endeavor

 

A couple of miles up the Arapaho Pass Trail, you’ll run into the remnants of the abandoned 4th of July Mine. On Independence Day of 1872, gold miners staked the original claim on the mine and named it after the fateful day.

Miner’s efforts laboring the heavy lead machinery towards Arapaho Pass were never rewarded with considerable spoils, however, and the mine was abandoned entirely in 1937. The trail’s sun-baked artifacts represent the struggles and harsh realities of mining in the Gold Rush era.

Wildlife in Indian Peaks Wilderness

A marmot that's poking their face out of a group of rocks.

A marmot hides amongst the lichen-coated rocks

A deer with a mouthful of grass

A carefree mountain deer (with a mouthful of grass)

 

During my hike, wildlife spottings were abundant. I witnessed marmots scurry about, deer forage for food, and hawks soar the wide-open Colorado skies overhead.

Keep your eyes peeled and your camera at the ready, because Indian Peaks Wilderness is teeming with mountain wildlife in its most natural habitat. Be on the lookout for elk, which are known to graze the area surrounding the trail.

At the trailhead, there’s a sign warning of bear presence in the area. If you’re wary of bears, bring bear spray, wear a bear bell, odor-proof your food, or hike in groups. Backpacker Magazine has an informative article on bear safety, which I recommend reading.

Arapaho Pass & Caribou Pass

Arapahoe Pass Trail winding above tree line towards mountains on the horizon

Arapaho Pass Trail: Your route to gorgeous views

Melting snow collecting into a pond with mountains in the background

Caribou Pass is simply breathtaking

 

The Fourth of July Trail will eventually split into two paths — Arapaho Pass Trail and Caribou Pass Trail — both of which offer stunning routes that explore further into Roosevelt National Forest.

Arapaho Pass, which tops out at 11,906 feet, and Caribou Pass which reaches 11,850 feet both offer stunning 360-degree views of jagged sawtooth-like mountains, sprawling meadows, and wide-stretching alpine forests.

Both trails lead to incredible backcountry camping within Indian Peaks Wilderness, which I’ll talk more about later in this post.

Lake Dorothy

A frozen over mountain lake in the Roosevelt National Forest

Arapaho Glacier’s runoff feeds Lake Dorothy

 

Lake Dorothy is the most popular destination among day hikers, and for good reason. Perched at 12,061 feet in elevation, the high-elevation lake is fed by runoff from the nearby Arapaho Glacier. It’s a splendid place to rest your feet and enjoy a well-deserved lunch.

It’s possible to fish for Colorado mountain trout in Lake Dorothy, but the window to do so isn’t very wide. I hiked to Lake Dorothy in mid-July, and it was completely frozen over, making it nearly impossible to fish. Visiting during August or September is your best bet for decent fishing, just don’t forget to secure a Colorado fishing license first. 

Arapaho Pass Trail: The Route to Incredible Backcountry Camping

A wooden sign reading "ARAPAHO PASS TRAIL, ARAPAHO GLACIER TRAIL" with mountains in the background

Boundless opportunities await along Arapaho Pass Trail

 

Opportunities for dispersed backcountry camping are ample along the Arapaho Pass and Caribou Pass Trails and just about anywhere in Indian Peaks Wilderness. Keep in mind that campers must purchase a $5 permit at a ranger station or mail in an application beforehand. More info on getting a permit can be found here.

If you decide to backcountry camp along the Arapaho Pass Trail or beyond, prepare yourself properly ahead of time. Scout out potential camping destinations on a map, research your route, look at a forecast, get an early start, pack enough food, and bring a backpack full of quality gear. Weather can get harsh in a hurry at high elevations, so don’t underestimate it.

Rules and Regulations

An informational sign titled "Fourth of July Trailhead"

An informational sign titled "Indian Peaks Wilderness"

There are some important rules and regulations to keep in mind when hiking the 4th of July Trail and camping in Indian Peaks Wilderness. Right-click one of the trailhead signs to view a full-sized image in a new window, or just read my abridged summary of the rules below.

  • Pets must be leashed at all times
  • Groups of 12 or more must obtain a Special Use Permit
  • Bikes, strollers, and motorized equipment are prohibited on the trail
  • Camping permits are required from June 1st to September 15th
  • Campfires are prohibited on the east side of the Continental Divide, and along the following locations on the west side of the Continental Divide: Caribou Lake, Columbine Lake, Pawnee Lake, Gourd Lake, and Crater Lake
  • Campfires are prohibited within 100 feet of lakes, streams, or trails
  • Camping is allowed only in designated campsites at Jasper Lake, Diamond Lake, Caribou Lake, and Crater Lakes Backcountry Zones
  • Camping is prohibited within 100 feet of lakes, streams, and developed trails
  • Camping is prohibited in the Four Lakes Backcountry Zone from May 1st to November 30th

Leave No Trace

For my entire hike, I enjoyed an entirely trash-free trail as I soaked in the scenery around me. The hikers along the trail have taken care of the land, and it was refreshing to see.

Pack out everything you bring with you, follow the trail guidelines, and do your part to leave the trail untainted for the rest of the world to enjoy.

For more information on leaving no trace, visit LNT.org.

Final Thoughts

Yellow wildflowers against a backdrop of jagged mountains

A bonafide Colorado hiking gem

 

In all my years spent hiking and backpacking in Colorado, I’ve rarely been blown away like I was along the 4th of July Trail. Tucked away beyond the eccentric mountain town of Nederland, the hiking and backpacking opportunities along this trail are incredible and seemingly endless.

As I look back on my adventure, I’m having an impossible time choosing the top highlight of my 7.2-mile journey into the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Was it the staggering views of rugged mountains jutting into the bright blue Colorado sky? Was it the abundance of alpine wildlife in its most natural setting? Was it an abandoned 19th-century mine, the picturesque Lake Dorothy, or the breathtaking Arapaho Pass? Or was it the temptation of incredible backcountry camping along a wild hiking trail that fades into the horizon?

The answer may never come to me, but I’ll keep searching. I have the rest of my life to investigate the wonders along the 4th of July Trail, and I don’t plan on letting another 32 years go by before I explore it again.

When will your adventure begin?

Plan Your Trip to Colorado: Travel Tips & Resources

Book Your Flight

Find cheap flights to Colorado by searching with Skyscanner or Momondo. Both sites pull fares from a huge network of airlines to help you find an affordable flight every time.

Book Accommodation

Use Booking.com — my go-to booking website — to reserve hotels and hostels in Colorado. Search Hostelworld to browse a gigantic database of affordable hostel options. Book with Airbnb to rent apartments, houses, or rooms from locals.

Rent a Car

Search RentalCars.com to compare prices among hundreds of car rental brands. Use Turo to rent cars, trucks, campervans, (and more) from locals.

Protect Your Trip

Travel is unpredictable. Use World Nomads to insure your trip against illness, theft, injury, and cancellation. They’re widely trusted among backpackers and travelers worldwide.

Travel Better

Browse through my complete list of travel and blogging resources that I use and recommend. See exactly which websites, apps, products, and services have helped me travel the world and maintain this blog.

Have you ever hiked the 4th of July Trail? What hikes near your hometown do you love? What’s your favorite day hike in Colorado? Give me some feedback with a comment below!


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